The first thing, I suppose, is to love what you do.
Education, the business of teaching and learning is filled with as many challenges as rewards. As a teacher, I did my best to master classroom management, fulfill professional responsibilities, and control the piles of essays waiting to be graded. Colleagues helped. I was always fortunate enough to find kindred spirits I could laugh with, bounce ideas off, and occasionally sing pirate shanties alongside.
I’m a principal now, with new challenges, and while it’s a job I love I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t feel the stress of wanting to do a job that makes my school proud.
When I feel that pressure, I find four things help me stay positive, balanced, and happy.
My family. My wife and I have been together since we were teenagers, and to imagine what my life would be like without her is impossible …living in a van filled with books and burrito wrappers comes to mind, I suppose. She, and my kids, provide a loving counterbalance to the heaviness of a hard day. A hike, a hug, a board game, or a bike ride… with them I find renewal, greater purpose, and joy.
Fun, whatever that looks like… Not long ago a magnet appeared on our fridge at home that read: DO MORE OF WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY. For me that means allowing myself some lightness, which I find in diverse and sometimes unlikely places, from Johnny Cash to Moon Knight, in the poems of Billy Collins, and the newspaper columns of Mark Morford. A good movie or a little live music can go a long way to putting the sturm und drang of the world into perspective.
Laughter heals, renews, and matters so much.
Health. Sure, I cage an apple fritter from time to time (and by “apple fritter” I mean an apple fritter and a maple bar), but as I leave 40 farther and farther behind and see 50 peeking over the next rise in the road, I find that avoiding the burnout that hangs over every high octane profession is helped immeasurably by eating right, meditation, and exercise.
I want to be able to play in the staff vs. student flag football game for years to come, and that’s not something that can happen if I don’t think about how I care about myself.
Always looking forward. Cared for, entertained, and not out of breath, I can’t be of much use in my job if I’m not always looking ahead optimistically. I was asked once -in a job interview, I think- what was the most important thing a principal does. I answered unhesitatingly (I hadn’t yet been a principal at the time) that it was to keep the vision of the the best the school could be. I’ve been a principal now long enough to know that this is one of the most important things I do.
Emily Dickinson, a favorite of mine, caught this sentiment poetically when she wrote: “I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose…” I need to be able to see, and articulate, the overwhelming potential of my school, and doing so does more than just promote an atmosphere where that potential can be realized, it also buoys me when skies darken.
It’s not that we can ever avoid stress, and who would want a life where we did? All adventures call for a little resistance. It’s finding friends and creating family, nurturing ourselves, and remaining optimistic that will help us thrive.
So, let’s put on some Johnny Cash, split an apple fritter, and laugh.